Not quite pork-barrel politics but some goodies from the sweetie jar come Thanet's way

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, March 15 2015

It ought not to be a surprise that the news of a £12m investment in High Speed 1 services to and from Thanet triggered a row over whether the government was playing pork barrel politics.

In about ten days time, the government would have been prevented from issuing  the news under what are known as purdah rules. This prevents government and councils from making announcements that might be construed as favouring particular parties.


With news of an imminent announcement buzzing around last week, UKIP leader Nigel Farage cheekily pre-empted the official news by declaring it unofficially, tweeting: "Great news which would never have happened if I weren't the candidate there!" He went on to claim that it was evidence of what UKIP could do to bring attention to an area "even before taking office."

His point was to suggest that the Conservatives are searching around for good news to spread because they are on the back foot in Thanet, where he is standing. Of course, the Conservatives denied any such thing, with the departing South Thanet MP Laura Sandys describing his intervention as unbelievably arrogrant.

But UKIP has a point, however irritating others may find it.

This is not the first announcement in recent weeks that could be construed as designed to benefit the Conservatives.

Notably, there was the news that the government was to appoint an independent consultant to review the decision by the Labour-controlled council not to pursue a CPO for Manston. This review will conveniently not report back before the election.

Some of the gloss came off this a touch this week with a highly critical report by the transport select committee, which took the Conservative-controlled Kent County Council and in particular its leader Paul Carter to task over its failings in helping Thanet council.

A gift to opposition parties who are probably rushing to the printers to get new election leaflets published.

Then there is the question of exactly what kind of boost the £12m investment will provide and whether it is actually new. The press release rather hid the major downside of the announcement, namley that the scheduled upgrade of the line won't be completed until 2019 - a four years away.

As to the journey times, the average reduction will be ten minutes off. Not bad but again, the press release refers to the "potential" for a reduction rather than a guaranteed one.

On the question of how genuinely new this all is, the waters are rather muddy.

Network Rail confirmed a year ago that it was working towards an upgrade on the HS1 line to bring journey times down to about an hour from Thanet to London at a cost of £10m. If this was separate from this week's announcement, then the PR people missed a trick by overlooking the fact that it could be a £22m investment.

The conclusion seems to be that they are one and the same.


Nigel Farage has admitted that he may not win his bid to become the MP for Thanet South. 

In a book serialised by The Daily Telegraph, he concedes he is facing a real battle and that if he fails it "would be curtains for me."

In one sense, this could be seen as a little defeatist and may have the effect of giving his opponents more impetus. On the other hand, this kind of candour does stand out from the earnestly positive remarks many candidates are choosing to post about their campaigns.

Twitter is full of would-be MPs posting update of their activity on the ground, usually accompanied by comments such as "brilliant day campaiging in x [insert name of constituency] and a great reaction on the doorstep."

Oh, and a deadly dull picture of activists holding leaflets, flags and banners.

Nevertheless, it is a risk for any politician to acknowledge they may lose. 



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Categories: Nostalgia | Tourism | Trains | Transport

Stripping Southeastern of its franchise is a knee-jerk reaction

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, January 20 2011

MPs are on the wrong track to call for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise.

It’s a kneejerk, populist and opportunistic response to the operator’s less than inspiring performance during the bad weather, and the inflation-busting New Year fare hike.

That’s not to ignore the nightmare for commuters in the snow. They had a horrible time. Some were trapped for hours on end, and Southeastern’s communications system, although better than a year ago, still left many travellers unaware of what was happening.

Southeastern does not deserve to be pilloried for a situation that was largely out of its control. It is stuck with an unsuitable third rail system that it would love to replace if billions of pounds were available. Network Rail looks after the track and any failure to clear snow is down to them.

The infrastructure owner did itself no favours by taking de-icing trains out of service just before the big freeze arrived. But at least it invested in heating strips in several Kent blackspots which appeared to help a little in the second snowfall. Southeastern’s information system was not great, especially at stations, but its website bulletins were unusally up-to-date.

The National Rail Inquiries site often took the wrong data. Given the horrendous conditions that affected rail services across the rest of Europe and the limitations of third rail, they did not do too badly. As for fare hikes, blame the Government which is progressively slashing subsidy.

The new coalition government raised the fare cap. Southeastern scored an own goal by failing to separate punctuality rates of high-speed from those of the traditional service.

By announcing a level fractionally above the 82 per cent compensation threshold, thanks to high-speed performance, they looked mean. It would have been good PR, if less good for the bottom line, to have split the two and awarded compensation to hard-pressed customers on traditional services.

But let’s not forget what Southeastern has achieved. Remember Connex and the nightmare it inflicted on passengers? Southeastern has improved the service no end. Before the snow, punctuality rates were pretty good. Its introduction of the superb high-speed service has been exemplary.

It plays a key role in the Kentish economy and takes an interest in its fortunes through sponsorship and community involvement. It will be crucial in the efficient transportation of people to and from the Olympic site at Stratford. Why risk a generally improving service by getting rid of an operator that is more often right than wrong?

There are many worse systems than Southeastern. Yes, there are lessons for Southeastern to learn, but let’s praise them for what they have achieved, and remember that many of the problems cited by MPs and others were not of their making.

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Categories: Business | Southeastern | Trains | Transport

Southeastern on the rack again. Will the government step in?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, January 4 2011

I've a distinct feeling of deja vu even though the new year is only a few days old.

Why? Well, Kent MPs are back on Southeastern's case, this time raising concerns about its claim to have reached punctuality targets that means it does not have to give season ticket holders a discount.

The reason why some MPs are uneasy is that the company did indeed pass the threshold but only by the narrowest of margins. 2010 was a pretty miserable year for rail travellers in the region and I get the distinct impression that MPs have pretty much had enough of Southeastern and feel that even if it is strictly within the terms under which discounts are offered, it is rubbing salt in the wounds of long-suffering commuters who have endured delays and cancellations.

It looks increasingly likely that our MPs are moving to some kind of collective position that calls - as a minimum step - on the government to prevent Southeastern being granted an extension to its franchise after 2012.

Beyond redemption - one Kent MP's view of Southeastern>>>

A couple have already gone public with calls for it to be stripped of the contract (Thanet North's Roger Gale and Rochester and Strood's Mark Reckless, who labelled the company in characteristically uncompromising language as 'beyond redemption'). Meanwhile, the Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clarke told me in carefully chosen words that when the government came to any view about the franchise "the quality of service to the customer is an important factor" and Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch has today written to the secretary of state for transport asking for an independent audit of Southeatern's punctuality claims.

Political predictions are tricky but I wouldn't bet against the government deciding that it too has had enough of Southeastern, particularly if - as seems inevitable - we get more bouts of bad weather and restles MPs representing heartland constituencies continue to demand that "something be done".

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Categories: Medway | Politics | Southeastern | Trains

What High Speed have done for us

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Wednesday, December 22 2010

Protests about the proposed route of High Speed 2 from London to the Midlands and the North will provoke hollow laughter in Kent. I remember reporting on marches from South Darenth and Sutton-at-Hone that demonstrated fierce opposition to the initial route.

There was the admission that a map had been drawn up on an official’s dining room table using out of date information and putting the route through a new housing estate near Blue Bell Hill, Chatham. When a Mid Kent Parkway station was proposed between Medway and Maidstone, there was an outcry that the “green lung” would be removed and prompt the creation of a “Medstone” or “Maidway” conurbation.

There was dismay with the proposal to put the link down the pretty Nashenden Valley. When construction started, there was outrage over the “scar on the landscape.”

I can hardly remember a good thing being said about the proposed railway, wherever it went. Maidstone council bowed to this anti-sentiment and voted not to have anything to do with what eventually became HS1 And yet, and yet...

Taking a lesson from the French city of Lille, which battled for the TGV line to go through its heart, Ashford council fought tooth and nail to have the service re-routed through the centre of the town. Look what that decision has done to the prosperity and potential of the town.

Commuter journeys have been transformed. Look at the potential for regeneration in Dover, Margate and Folkestone from the presence of what is a brilliant service on state-of-the-art Hitachi trains. Look at the great advertisement for the county. Kent, a railway back-marker since the 1800s, is no longer on the wrong side of the tracks.

While third-rail trains were stuck in the snow, HS1 kept on rolling. More than seven million passengers took HS1 in its first year and I bet that figure will be a lot higher next year. It is a powerful economic driver for the county, raises our game and is proving a powerful incentive for firms to move to the county.

Just as 19th century steam trains and track came to blend into the countryside, with pressure groups lobbying to preserve threatened lines, so the railway that sparked so much protest in Mid and North West Kent is now part of our landscape. Nothing much to protest about now. The engineers did a great job.

Maidstone is left on the sidelines, now pleading for a high-speed station that was once there for the taking. Prosperity is slowly shifting to Ashford and will in time flow to Dover, Margate and Folkestone. House prices will rise disproportionately in towns with good access to the trains. A Manston Parkway station is on the cards.

HS2 protesters should look to the Kent experience and see that while they should ensure the route is tweaked here and there, and tunnelled under beautiful places, there is so much to gain from high-speed rail in terms of greener travel and greater convenience in a modern world. Things we fear in advance often come to be loved. In a 100 years’ time, HS2 and HS1 will be celebrated as much as the steam railways of another era.

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Categories: Business | Trains | Transport

Let’s face it, we don’t do snow

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Tuesday, December 21 2010

Let’s face it, we don’t do snow. While railway systems and airports in cold places worldwide can cope, we are just not geared up for the white stuff.

It is costing billions in lost business and productivity, not to mention the cost to millions of people. Friends in Canada report that snow there is umpteen feet deep, but all transport systems are working normally. There has to be sympathy for the thousands of people stranded at airports and St Pancras International, many of them from overseas.

The message they are getting from the snow debacle is that we are a third-rate country who cannot get the world’s busiest airport back in action. Even if we don’t have enough hardware to clear the stuff, at least we could try to excel at communications and public relations.

But the stranded passengers have been badly let down by the absence of information. It’s a poor show, and a classic case study for PR professionals. They should have been working alongside the operations people to keep people informed. People accept that nature happens, but when they are not told anything, they do not know what decisions to make. They need reassurance and information is one way of doing it. Give Southeastern its due, it seems to have heeded the information gaps of January and early December to up its game.

Its website has been pretty much up-to-date, with station signage and announcements better than before. And it actually kept a lot of trains running. It is natural to blame the Government for every woe, but without adequate preparation there’s not a lot it can do.

The previous administration would have been no different. It did not properly prepare for lots of snow, and the present lot have continued that policy. However, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond needs to act quickly to reassure his boss and the public that he is in charge.

He has generally made a good start, and actually seems to know about transport, but he could come a cropper if he fouls up the snow issue. I know that snow has been rare in recent years, and that encouraged complacency. But the lessons of January and December suggest we may be in for a lot more of it.

Even if we are not, it is important politically to invest substantial sums in technology. Even more important to devise a rapid response Snow Action Plan that can be ready to implement every time. It needs to involve ministers, airport, airline, rail and road chiefs to ensure that we are never caught in such an embarrassing position again.

It will cost a lot of money - not something the Coalition wants to contemplate - the technology may not be needed very often, but the UK has to be seen to demonstrate that it is preparing for a next time. Otherwise it will never live down a battered reputation for crisis management. It really is time we did snow and stopped all this slipping and sliding that tells the world that we are not up to the job.

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Categories: Business | snow | Trains | Transport

Snow and Southeastern

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Friday, December 17 2010

Forget talk of a double dip recession for a moment. Double dose of snow is the main problem for businesses just now.

The white stuff is all around us again as the last clumps of dirty ice from the previous snowfall still linger in gutter and field. A deep snowfall would put a real damper on last-minute spending over the next few days, even though shoppers will do their best to get out and keep those tills jingling, especially as online shopping seems a no-no.

The big weakness with Internet shopping is you have to rely on someone delivering your items, and at busy times there are not enough people. When there is snow, vans cannot get through. Millions of gifts are piling up in distribution centres and there will be lots of disappointed people on December 25.

If you order online now, it could well be 2011 before the items arrive. That’s good news for the bricks and mortar retailers as shoppers get back to dealing with real people and handling real things. Hopefully, Southeastern will have learned lessons from last week’s chaos.

To be fair, it was not all their fault, and Network Rail made a mess of de-icing by putting two trains into maintenance as the snow deepened. Southeastern prides itself on getting information right on its website but has blamed the national rail inquiry service for not using the right information, making it seem that trains are running when they are not. I spoke to Vince Lucas, the operator’s service delivery director, at the first anniversary celebrations for High Speed 1 (a real snow success story).

He admitted there were things they could improve, especially on the information front. “Our website had a pretty accurate picture of what was happening. Unfortunately, many people looking on their iPhone or computers were getting feeds from National Rail Enquiries.”

As for those unlucky people stranded for hours in trains, he said it was safer to keep them inside the train than allow them to wander alongside the track in sub-zero temperatures without the right clothing. Apparently, there is a heating strip on the third rail, but Mr Lucas says it would take huge amounts of energy to heat it all.

And the snow was so deep in places that no heating in the world would have made any difference. There are calls for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise but these are knee-jerk reactions to the mess it made of the snow communications.

Season ticket holders may not get any compensation because of Southeastern’s reasonable performance the rest of the year. That is a blessing in disguise. At least it shows that when snow is not around, Southeastern doesn’t do a bad job. They should not be fired for failing to cover themselves in glory in extreme weather conditions. Even the Swiss might have had problems with the wrong sort of track with which Kent is stuck.

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Categories: Business | snow | Southeastern | Trains | Transport

Kent paralysed by snow: Who's to blame?

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Thursday, December 2 2010

The inevitable inquest begins.

Why does every piece of transport go to pot in the snow in Kent and the UK?

Why can’t we be like the Swiss, the Austrians or the Scandinavians, goes the argument? KCC leader Paul Carter, who launched his gridlock-solving strategy on a day of extreme gridlock, suggests we should all invest in snow chains so we can at least drive our cars. But that would not be much help on the railways.

Blame flies everywhere. Just as last January, Southeastern is the whipping boy. Understandable, if you are stranded at a station or stuck in a cold carriage for hours on end. And more so when you are charged a fortune for the privilege.

The lack of information, the main complaint last time, has been the main problem this time around. Why on earth in this age of modern communications a steady flow of information should not be readily available is beyond me. It is little help for the operator’s spokespeople to say the website is updated.

Few people have Blackberries and other devices to access the internet remotely. And info is often overtaken by events. What passengers need are real announcements at regular intervals at stations and inside the trains.

They need to feel someone knows what they are doing and to have confidence in the staff. Unfortunately, both are sadly lacking, for all the efforts and passion of the rail crews. But it's over-the-top to call for Southeastern to be stripped of its franchise.

In more weather-friendly times, they have been doing a reasonably good job. And Network Rail probably should shoulder some of the blame. Southeastern has a partial technical excuse in that the third rail system with its conductor is appalling in bad weather.

Just look at the high-speed and Eurostar trains working pretty well with the overhead catenary. It would be great to replace the third rail with catenary, but in the present financial climate that’s unlikely to happen.

But I’m sure a technical whizz should be able to build heating systems into the third rail and the conductor pick-up. Some veterans seem to think things are worse now than they were a few years ago when the the system was the same. Has it got worse??

SouthEastern does not appear to have learnt much from January, and it should show a readiness to compensate season ticket holders for abysmal service, notwithstanding the harsh conditions. With commuters facing a swingeing inflation-busting increase in January, it would be a nice PR gesture to postpone the increase for a month or two.

How about it Southeastern – and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond? Passengers deserve compensation for their ordeal - as well as a decent snow-busting plan next time around. This chaos cannot be allowed to happen again, disrupting so many lives, damaging the economy and harming so many Kent businesses.

Categories: Business | snow | Trains | Transport

Against All Odds

by The What's On blog, with Chris Price Wednesday, December 1 2010

OK, so the snow has wrecked just about every single travel route in Kent.

I joined the hundreds of commuters stuck on the gridlocked A2 yesterday (Tuesday, November 30) until I swerved off the pandemonium onto the hard-shoulder for about 300 yards (very naughty I know) and took the next junction off the motorway and made my way home through the country lanes.


London is slightly different. You can actually get from A to B, albeit at a snail’s pace in some instances. I know from the ear-ache I’ve been getting from my commuter dad and brother that there are no excuses for city workers heading into the capital. The trains are slowly running from my home town of Gravesend into the Big Smoke but I know delays have been much heavier for commuters from other areas of Kent. We have all heard stories of people stranded on trains on their way home on four-hour journeys.


So it is with this knowledge that I fear for anyone going to see Arcade Fire at the O2 Arena tonight (Wednesday, December 1) or tomorrow. Although I appreciate travelling is tough at the moment, I’ll be hacked off if the venue is half empty for a set from one of the best live acts in the world at the moment.


A gig is nothing without atmosphere and while tonight’s performance is sold out and tomorrow’s (which I am going to) has only some additional seating left for sale, I fear the worst for the attendance levels.


What would the Canadian outfit think of what happens to this country when we get a few inches of snow? Of course, the UK’s budget for dealing with this level of snowfall is much smaller than that of the North Americans but that will not stop the sniggers from our cousins across the Atlantic. It might also dissuade Arcade Fire from playing over here at this time of year again.


To be honest I was a bit miffed when I heard their headline sets at the Reading and Leeds Festivals this summer were poorly attended. This was largely down to scepticism from ticket buyers about the Montreal band getting bill topper status when they had only released two albums.


Yet when they released their mind-blowing third effort The Suburbs in the spring, it should have silenced the doubters and made for a sensational gig. Let’s face it, the other two headline acts were Guns and Roses, whose frontman Axl Rose showed up an hour late, and the brilliant but slightly dated Blink 182.


So for anyone out there umming or arring about whether to brave the cold and hop on a train to the O2 (I am not advocating driving – this is clearly not safe at the moment) then this is a call to arms. The spirit of rock and roll should implore you to support your favourite band no matter the obstruction or journey time.


It is not as if you’ll be suffering delays for a train that is going to take you to work, where you don’t want to be anyway, is it?

Categories: Celebrities | Commuting | Entertainment | Leisure | Trains | snow

Train fare rises - can we afford it?

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Wednesday, November 24 2010

Swingeing fare rises for Kent and Medway commuters could be good news for local businesses.

The inflation-busting increase in peak-time fares and season tickets - three per cent above RPI - will convince many passengers that enough is enough.

They will have enough of shelling out, in many cases, well over three grand from taxed income for the benefit of a packed carriage. Not everyone can afford the less-crowded luxury of the high-speed trains, which, for many, do not go to the right London station anyway.

So this is the time for businesses based in the county to woo them to work locally, to put their talents and time to the benefit of local employers and the local economy. Not only will the employees gain a more pleasant lifestyle, they will save a fortune in fares.

I know that jobs are in short supply, but the challenge for local businesses is to find places for these people in preparation for a probable upturn. But they must be prepared to pay reasonable salaries, taking into account, of course, the savings in time and money that will benefit the former London workers.

Locate in Kent, the inward investment agency, should also tap into the situation, telling potential inward investors that a pool of skilled, motivated, people who commute out of the county every day might well be willing, with the right offer, to work for them if they decide to set up here.

As for Southeastern, they face the prospect of reduced revenue if enough passengers vote with their feet and stop being held to ransom by an unprincipled fare policy that yet again penalises the people who contribute most - through their taxes and talent - to society.

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Categories: Trains | Transport

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